Securing long-term ecosystem function in lowland organic soils (SEFLOS)

Lead Research Organisation: Bangor University
Department Name: Sch of Environment and Natural Resources

Abstract

The UK produces 58% of its own vegetables which have an estimated economic value of £1.2 billion annually. Many of these are produced on the lowland fen peatlands within the East Anglia region. This is particularly the case for field-grown salad vegetables with these peatlands supplying the majority of salad vegetables to all the major UK supermarkets. While these soils are recognised as being super-productive, they are also highly susceptible to damage which is threatening their long term economic future. For example, the average rate of soil loss from a combination of wind erosion and microbial breakdown of the peat lies in the region 1-2 cm depth per year. It is also widely predicted that the rate of loss is likely to increase with climate change making it a fragile resource. Some of the more shallow peats have already been completely lost, while the deeper peats have a finite lifetime estimated to be in the region of 75-125 years unless something is done to reduce the rate of soil loss. The recent House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report on Soil Health identified the loss of soil from cultivated peatlands as one of the greatest threats to soil security in the UK. In response to this, our project aims to work with the horticultural industry and other key organisations to investigate new ways to save these peatlands from further rapid degradation and a loss of natural capital. We will focus on trying to reduce both the biologically-mediated loss of soil carbon and also the physical wind erosional loss of soil. We hypothesise that active management of the water table at strategic times of the year (e.g. during winter when there is no crop in the ground) can be used to reduce microbial activity in the soil and reduce losses of peat in the form of CO2. However, this must be done in such a way that it doesn't increase the release of other greenhouse gases (CH4, N2O) or result in other negative impacts on productivity or on soil quality. In addition, usin outdoor mesocosm trials, we will explore other potential synergistic strategies that may complement water table intervention as a soil conservation measure (e.g. use of nitrification inhibitors, cover crops etc). As our knowledge of the amount of soil lost by wind erosion remains poor, we will also use field monitoring and controlled wind tunnel experiments to get a better quantitative estimate of this loss pathway. This will allow growers to decide on whether to invest in protective technologies that might reduce erosional losses (e.g. soil physical binding agents, winter cover). While this project will generate lots of fundamental knowledge on peatland behaviour under different management scenarios, it is important that the research also recognises the socioeconomic context in which these agricultural systems operate. A key part of this project will therefore be to evaluate the social, economic and environmental impacts of the alternative strategies and compare these against the business-as-usual scenario. To facilitate this, a stakeholder workshop at the start of the project with representatives from industry, environmental regulators and policymakers, local drainage boards and conservation bodies will be used to actively steer the project towards outcomes that are both practical, economically viable and provide the best environmental outcome. This will be complemented by a final engagement workshop towards the end of the project where the barriers to technology adoption are explored. This will lead to the production of a grower- and policy-orientated roadmap for future preservation of this fragile soil resource and will have a focus on balancing economic and environmental sustainability. Ultimately, the research simultaneously aims to protect this soil resource for generations to come whilst maintaining profitability, productivity, and UK government's desire for sustainable intensification, greater food security and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Planned Impact

We propose a multifaceted way of disseminating our project findings and realising impact. We will build on our experience of previous and current RCUK funded projects. Key target audiences include:

INDUSTRY: This research proposal is directly underpinned by industry. To maximise impact and to facilitate knowledge exchange (KE), we have teamed up with the major industry involved in horticultural production on lowland peatlands in the UK (G's Ltd) and their network of individual producers (G's Growers Ltd). Part of the KE activity will be achieved by placing the experimental trials on the farms owned by G's. Secondly, G's will have a representative (Dr Ed Moorhouse) on our Management Board and who will attend the management meetings. Lastly, the inception and final stakeholder workshops will be co-organised with G's and held at the Ely office. These meetings are designed to engage with stakeholders who have an interest in managing lowland peats both inside and outside of horticulture (e.g. RSPB, Natural England, Water Management Alliance/Internal Drainage Boards, Fens For The Future Partnership). Together, our stakeholders will provide invaluable guidance throughout the project and will facilitate the dissemination of the project findings.

POLICY COMMUNITY: The recent House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report on Soil Health identified the loss of soil carbon from cultivated peatlands as one of the greatest threats to soil security in the UK. There is therefore a very strong high-level policy interest within UK government (Defra, DBEIS) and its devolved administrations (Welsh and Scottish Government) in quantifying and mitigating emissions from cultivated peat soils. The findings of our research will therefore contribute to meeting the UK's climate change targets, whilst simultaneously achieving a sustainable, economically viable agricultural sector within these vital crop-producing regions. Through our existing high-level interactions with key government departments and international committees (e.g. IPCC) we can ensure that the information generated by this project will realise impact. We will also produce a policy briefing note entitled "Sustainable lowland peat management: a future roadmap". See also the letters of support for this project provided by DEFRA and DECC.

WIDER COMMUNITY: A web page and Twitter feed from the Bangor website will provide ongoing information on the project and its results. Different aspects of the project will be used for teaching, generating student projects. We will also feature the project in School Science Week, using visualisation of lettuces in peat soils to stimulate wider discussion about agriculture (food security) and the environment. Alongside regular publicity activities, we will also write news articles for the Soil Security website and for media outlets such as The Conversation.

SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY: Our research will inform scientists working in several areas of research (e.g. crop production/agronomy, life cycle assessment, greenhouse gas emissions, soil quality). We will generate fundamental information on the C and N cycling in peat soils, ways to reduce their loss while still maintaining productivity and the socioeconomic costs associated with this. These findings will be promoted through the project-dedicated website, at national and international conferences and in peer-reviewed publications.

Publications


10 25 50